Billy Bob Thornton is the first person to tell you that some people don't know what to expect when they come to see him perform with his band, The Boxmasters. "About three songs in," he explained to his middle-aged crowd, "about seven or eight people who were expecting us to play 'Mustang Sally' or see me act like Carl from Sling Blade start scratching their heads and going, 'What is this stuff?'" The fact of the matter is that Thornton has been playing music for 40 years. He explained to the intimate Coach House crowd that before he was discovered in an acting class, he was opening for such acts as Ted Nugent, Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, and Humble Pie. On Thursday night, he proved that he, with his fellow Boxmasters, can still put on an outstanding, no frills rock show.
At eight o'clock, opening band Grass (which hails from Temecula Valley) warmed up the audience with its own blues and country rock. Rhythm guitarist / vocalist John Lane was the ringleader of this powerful foursome, which featured some great guitar solos by John Michael Le Clerc and deft but unobtrusive bass lines by Tim Raether. Jeff Gaylor hammered out the drum beats. After a pretty solid 45 minute set, the stage was cleared and The Boxmasters took over -- bringing with them their own brand of country rock, the diversity of Thornton's storytelling, and some poignant messages for the receptive crowd.
The music of The Boxmasters essentially has two modes. One is very upbeat and happy sounding, and the other is a bit more moody. As Thornton recently explained to the Weekly, sometimes the lighthearted sounds of the band's uptempo songs belie the heavier meanings of the lyrics. A good deal of the show actually consisted of Thornton telling stories about the songs. This was great for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it provided the audience with an opportunity to appreciate the songs on a much deeper level; secondly, Thornton is a great storyteller, and listening to his commentary is both entertaining and enlightening.
While his manner of presenting the stories was essentially through down-to-earth banter, the substance was by turns endearingly honest and compassionate. For the song "She Looks Like Betty Page," Thornton revealed that he used to date a girl who [you guessed it] looked like Bettie Page, but the crux of the issue was that the girl was an absolutely horrible person; however, despite how foul-tempered and rude this girl was to apparently everyone in the world, Thornton didn't mind because of her looks. For the song "Away Away," Thornton made an appeal to politicians and other people who rally about helping starving nations that they should be aware of and help the folks who are starving just down the street, in our own country.
Though Thornton's name and personality play a prominent role in the show, the band is essentially made up of all-stars. Having won awards, released their own solo albums, and played with many other prominent musicians, the rest of the gang put on a powerhouse show, which ably balanced out Thornton's own terrific vocal performance and overall presence. Lead guitarist Brad Davis played some extraordinary psychedelic solos (particularly during the extended intro of "Away Away"). Keyboardist Teddy Andreadis not only used his keyboards to do a great job on the songs, but he also did the old Paul Shaffer routine and punctuated some of Thornton's humorous speeches with flourishes, but it wasn't until the last song or two when Andreadis grabbed a harp and stepped out front that he grabbed the spotlight and held it well. As for J.D. Andrew, who has been Thornton's songwriting partner since The Boxmasters formed in 2007, he played a solid show on rhythm guitar and sounded wonderful on the harmonies.
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Along with Thornton's intros, the songs cut deep in their sentiments and in their performances. This was especially true for the crowd at The Coach House, which Thornton took into his confidence. Before performing the song "Dead Inside," which was about the horrible feeling that a person can sometimes have when they falsely believe that a relationship failed due to some fault of their own, Thornton revealed that the subject matter was too deep for some audiences. He recalled beginning his explanation to some other crowd, which stared at him with the idiotic gaze of "a pig staring at a wristwatch." When he realized that they weren't getting it, he made up an alternate, fantastical meaning for them in which he revealed that the song was about how his grandmother had died and was discovered on the inside of a wall -- after his grandfather tore the wall down with a crowbar.
Essentially, the show was a musical storytelling experience of the highest order. Songs like "Piece of the Sky" gave the band a platform to criticize religious people who think that it's okay to "hack someone to pieces in the name of God" because they believe that they own a piece of the sky. "What Did You Do Today" was an appeal for every person to contribute something, however small, to show the world that they have a voice and can stand out or make a difference in some way. Beyond introducing the songs, Thornton used the pulpit to urge people not to worry about criticism from others. Furthermore, he said that folks who use the Internet to register their complaints about people and products that they don't like have something very wrong with them, and he wondered why such people can be so full of hatred that they choose to spend their time in this way.